Thursday 26 April 2018

The perils of turning doubles into trebles

Many back-to-back champions have tried and failed. Why is the All-Ireland SFC hat-trick so elusive? Martin Breheny talks to famous names about their experience

September 2008; Kerry goalkeeper Diarmuid Murphy in action against Martin Penrose, Tyrone.
September 2008; Kerry goalkeeper Diarmuid Murphy in action against Martin Penrose, Tyrone.
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

Seven have tried, six have failed. It's a stark statistic that won't feature in Jim Gavin's extensive dossier as Dublin take their All-Ireland three-in-a-row attempt to the third last fence today.

Only Kerry (1978-80 and 1984-86) have won the treble since the great Galway team did it in 1964-66.

And since that exceptional Kerry squad and their remarkable manager Mick O'Dwyer (they completed a four-timer in '81) set targets that are unlikely to be ever hit again, their achievements remain in a special category.

Six teams (Kerry 1969-70, Offaly 1971-72, Dublin 1976-77, Meath 1987-88, Cork 1989-90, Kerry 2006-07) won the double in the past 50 years but all failed to join the far more exclusive three-in-a-row club.

Galway's success in the mid-60s was the first three-in-a-row since Kerry in 1939-41.

In the interim, Roscommon (1943-44, Cavan 1947-48, Mayo 1950-51 and Down 1960-61) won doubles but couldn't take it any further.

That ten teams have missed the treble hit in 70 years proves just how difficult it is to remain in top spot for so long.

Now, it's Dublin turn to take on the mighty challenge, with Monaghan, Armagh/Tyrone, Mayo/Roscommon/Kerry between them and the glittering prize.

So what goes through teams' minds as they set out in pursuit of the treble? Why has it proved so elusive? And how have they felt afterwards? This is the story of three attempts and how they went wrong.

Larry Tompkins felt angry and frustrated. The streets of Killarney were jammed with delighted Kerry and dejected Cork supporters.

It was still only mid-June but Cork's season had already come to a shuddering halt, scattering All-Ireland treble ambitions in all directions. Cork expected to complete the three-in-a-row in 1991 and, according to Tompkins, would have done so if they had prepared properly.

"At our best, we were eight to ten points better than them but we were a long way from our best that day," says Tompkins.

"Our preparation wasn't right, training had been poor and maybe there was a feeling in the dressing-room that we would win Munster fairly handy and then wind up for the All-Ireland. That's the thing about sport. Whatever you achieve, you have to get better to do it again.

"Dublin have won the double but they need to be even better to win the treble. That's the test. Can they get better? We could have in 1991 but we didn't.

"Whether we recognised it or not, a certain softness had crept in. It can happen when you get used to winning all the time. Making sure it doesn't is the big test for management and players."

Tompkins was especially frustrated because he had defied the laws of medical science at the time to be fit for the 1991 championship.

He had undergone a cruciate ligament operation a month after captaining Cork to the All-Ireland double in 1990 and was told it could be up to a year before he would be fully fit.

Determined to defy the prognosis, he travelled to the Lilleshall sports rehabilitation centre in England, where among those in his group were soccer stars Alan Shearer and Ally McCoist.

"It was fierce hard going but they were doing it for their professional careers while I was doing it to be fit for the championship," he says.

"They thought I was stone mad to be putting myself through all the pain for no money. In fact, they thought I was telling them lies when I said I wasn't being paid."

Cork County Board footed the bill, just as they had in 1988 when Tompkins went over to Manchester United for intensive treatment on a troublesome hamstring injury. Paul McGrath and Bryan Robson picked him up from his hotel every morning and took him to United's training ground.

"It was the difference between me playing in the All-Ireland final replay against Meath and not. Going to England for specialist treatment was ahead of its time and it certainly worked for me," he explains.

"People can say what they like about the Cork County Board or (long-serving secretary) Frank Murphy but you won't hear a bad word from me about them. They were great with me - no expense spared."

Despite his 'fast-track' recovery in 1991, Tompkins believes that his immediate recall to the Cork team for the clash with Kerry wasn't a good sign.

"I hadn't played since the previous year's final and yet I was able to get back into the team straight away although I wasn't match-fit. Why hadn't some other lad taken my place and made it hard for me to get back?" he asks.

"It was all part of a slackness that had crept in - something was missing that year and we paid the price for it."

With no qualifiers back then, Cork were left to regret missing a great chance to complete the treble.

"It was our own fault. Down won the All-Ireland and, with all due respects to them, I'm sure we would have beaten them," says Tompkins.

"I suppose you could say we beat ourselves by not preparing properly and not having the right mental attitude for the Kerry game.

"You won't win an All-Ireland without getting everything right and you don't win three-in-a-row without getting better all the time. Dublin know that.

"They will beat Monaghan but it's going to get very difficult after that. They will need to be spot on physically and mentally to meet that challenge."

Willie Bryan recalls the dashes to O'Connell Bridge to be picked up for the trips to Tullamore.

It's an hour's journey now but back in the early 1970s, bad roads and slower cars took the journey time closer to two hours.

Bryan and several other Offaly players were working in Dublin at the time - hence the 5.30pm O'Connell Bridge rendezvous to be driven to Tullamore.

A quick change, a gallop onto the pitch and training or a practice game was underway. In the summer of 1973, Offaly were preparing for an attempt to win the All-Ireland treble, two years after taking the title for the first time.

It should have been very exciting but, behind the scenes, things weren't quite right.

Disquiet rumbled in the camp over an issue that modern-day squads would find incomprehensible.

Offaly County Board were refusing to pay for meals for players' wives and girlfriends after games. There were other issues too that irritated the squad.

"The mood wasn't great. The meals thing might seem small but it was annoying," says Bryan. "Offaly were on top for the first time ever, we had won two All-Irelands in a row and a little thing like paying for meals became a problem.

"It didn't cost us the All-Ireland but it was something that should not have happened. There was no need for it."

The treble bid ended at the All-Ireland semi-final stage when Offaly lost to Galway. A year later, they lost the Leinster quarter-final to Dublin, ending the greatest era in Faithful football history.

Bryan says that by 1973 the squad were probably becoming mentally tired. And while they won Leinster, they were out-run by a more energetic Galway side in the semi-final.

"A lot of us had been on the road since we won the minor All-Ireland in 1964. Some of us came on to the senior team fairly quickly so we were going a long time. So I suppose it caught up with us," he says.

"Having said that, I think we'd have won the 1973 All-Ireland if we got to the final. Cork beat Galway but we had beaten Cork two years earlier and would have had a great chance of doing it again."

Sean Boylan sensed that something wasn't quite right with the Meath squad in the summer of 1989.

Supporters were giddy with anticipation of an All-Ireland treble, even if the team wasn't going particularly well. Outsiders put Meath's poor league campaign down to all their focus being on the championship bid but it wasn't that simple.

"We thought we were working hard, and we were, but something was missing compared to the previous few years," says Boylan.

"I suppose it was my fault that I didn't find out what it was. I'd normally be good at that but, for some reason, it wasn't easy to figure it out that year."

Figuring out Dublin in the Leinster final was a problem too, one that remained unsolved.

"I'd always give great credit to Gerry McCaul (Dublin manager) for how he set up the team that day. Their half-backs, Tommy Carr, Keith Barr and Eamonn Heery always liked to get forward a lot but they stayed back that day and did a great job cutting off the supply to our inside forwards.

"We still managed to lead in the second half but they got a goal and finished that bit stronger," says Boylan.

The absence of full-back Mick Lyons - Dublin's nemesis - was most unfortunate for Meath. He had broken his leg earlier in the year and while he was back on the panel, Boylan didn't consider him to be fit enough to play.

"People said I should have had him warm up on the sideline to unsettle the Dubs but I wasn't going to do that when he couldn't play. He probably felt he could play but I don't think it would have been fair to put him on after being out for so long," says Boylan.

"It was unfortunate for us that Mick wasn't fully fit as he always played well against Dublin."

Meath would have relished the second chance that applies for beaten provincial teams nowadays.

"We always came on strong as the season went on but there was no way back that time," said Boylan.

He believes that Dublin have an excellent chance of completing the three-in-a-row, largely because Jim Gavin has so many options across the various lines.

"One very big difference now is that you can use six subs, whereas we could only bring on three. When you can change more than a third of your team, you can give most of the players on the squad a lot of experience over a period of time," he says.

"It was different when only three subs were allowed. Apart from anything else, you had to be very careful with your timing. You couldn't risk using your last sub early in the second half because you could be down to 14 men if someone got injured.

"There are far more options now and it certainly suits Dublin, who have so many good players."

Irish Independent

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